The Rights of Women and Girls
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination (CEDAW) is the UN treaty that outlines women’s basic right to equality. The Convention entered into force in 1981. The Convention requires states parties to combat sex-based discrimination through legislation, education and elimination of prejudices and practices that are based on stereotyped roles. The Convention also requires states parties to submit periodic reports, reviewed by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.
Optional Protocol to CEDAW
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination does not include a right of petition, and therefore, alone, has no enforcement mechanism. In 2000, however, an Optional Protocol to CEDAW entered into force. The Optional Protocol creates a mechanism by which individual citizens or groups in a State party, which has ratified the Protocol, may submit complaints to the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (the Committee). After having received a communication, the Committee has the authority to request the State Party to adopt provisional measures to protect the victim of a human rights abuse from further harm.
General Recommendation 19
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination does not directly address violence against women. In 1992, the Committee adopted General Recommendation 19 which explains that the prohibition of gender-based discrimination includes violence. The Committee stated, “violence that is directed at a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately [is discrimination]. It includes acts that inflict physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty . . .” Violence against women is an internationally recognized human rights violation when either a public official or a private person commits the violence. State parties to CEDAW must take all the necessary measures to eliminate violence, including legal sanctions, civil remedies, preventative measures, (such as public information and education campaigns) and protective measures (such as support services for victims).
Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women
The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women was adopted by UN General Assembly resolution in 1993. While the Declaration does not create legally binding obligations for States, it nevertheless represents a clear consensus that “violence against women constitutes a violation of the rights and fundamental freedoms of women and impairs or nullifies their enjoyment of those rights and freedoms . . .” The Declaration explains that violence against women is “a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of the full advancement of women.” Although the Declaration describes violence as rooted in historical power inequalities between men and women, it still makes clear that violence against women violates existing universal human rights norms. Significantly, the Declaration’s definition of violence is expansive, including physical, sexual or psychological harm as well as threats and coercion, occurring in both public and private spheres. Finally, the Declaration emphasizes the obligation of the State to ensure prevention, investigation and punishment of all perpetrators, minimizing the distinction between public and private actors.
Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action
The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was adopted by the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. The Platform for Action reaffirms the fundamental principal that the rights of women and girls are an “inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights.” The Platform for Action also calls upon governments to take action to address several critical areas of concern, among them violence against women. The Platform for Action states, “Violence against women is an obstacle to the achievement of the objectives of equality, development and peace. Violence against women both violates and impairs or nullifies the enjoyment by women of their human rights and fundamental freedoms. The long-standing failure to protect and promote those rights and freedoms in the case of violence against women is a matter of concern to all States and should be addressed. . . . In all societies, to a greater or lesser degree, women and girls are subjected to physical, sexual and psychological abuse that cuts across lines of income, class and culture. The low social and economic status of women can be both a cause and a consequence of violence against women.”
The definition of violence, contained in the Platform for Action, is broad, including ‘any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.’
The Beijing Platform for Action also requires all governments to develop strategies or national plans of action to implement the Platform locally. The National Plans of Action for each country outline specific activities that the national governments will undertake to improve the situation of women, including addressing violence against women.